After two thousand years of Christian belief, it is difficult for modern Christians to appreciate the novelty that a bodily resurrection was to Jesus’ contemporaries. The Jews before Jesus had very little perception of what happened to the individual after death. In fact, along with the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Eucharist, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ and eventually of all the deceased is a uniquely Christian revelation. The Old Testament did have some hints of life after death. Ezekiel wrote prophetically, “I will open your graves and have you rise from them.” The Book of Job reads very beautifully, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and in the last day I shall rise out of the earth. And I shall be clothed again with my skin, and in my flesh I will see my God.” The Book of Maccabees also reveals some appreciation of life after death when it condones Temple offerings for the dead “that they might be loosed from their sins.” In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees tended toward some belief in the resurrection while the Sadducees did not. And the Greek world had some appreciation of the immortality of the soul. But a firm belief in a bodily resurrection was not decided by the Jews or by the Greeks. Belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ and eventually of all the faithful clearly began on Easter morning at the empty tomb.
The empty tomb is critical for a full awareness of the significance of Christ’s resurrection and mankind’s eventual resurrection. The physical man Jesus Christ did not simply transfer his existence into some spiritual or ethereal reality. He was not a ghost. The Risen Christ at Jerusalem had body and soul just as surely as the newborn Christ had flesh and spirit at Bethlehem. As St. Peter recalls in the Acts of Apostles, “This man God raised on the third day and granted that he be visible, not to all the people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” The visibility of the Risen Christ noted by St. Peter, the body of the Risen Jesus embraced briefly by St. Mary Magdalene, and the meals consumed by the Risen Savior in the upper room and along the sea shore all testify not simply to some spiritual immortality but indeed to a truly corporeal fullness after death.
Many Christians appreciate the powerful presence of the risen Christ through his Word, the Sacred Scriptures. Roman Catholics, while certainly treasuring the words of the Bible, go a further step and believe that “the Word became flesh.” Jesus chose to reveal himself during his lifetime not only through words but through deeds as well: “He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” And Jesus continues his work of evangelization both by word and by deed, both spiritually and physically, in the Church community that bears his name. The sacramental nature of the Catholic Church which employs material goods like water, wine, bread, anointings with oil, the laying on of hands, public vows, interpersonal dialogue and vesture in its most solemn ceremonies is clearly a consequence of the Resurrection of Christ. Catholic piety is also expressed concretely and warmly through material goods: sacred vessels, crucifixes, rosaries, statues, icons, medals and candles. Catholic architecture as well from stained glass windows to lofty towers announces God to the countryside in material fashion. The renewed interest in the physical world surrounding mankind recently highlighted by Pope Francis in his encyclical “Laudato Si’” gathers much validity from the Christian belief that Christ rose from the dead body and soul. The entire universe has been energized by the resurrection of Jesus: body and soul, flesh and spirit, earth and heavens.
During this year’s Jubilee of Mercy our Holy Father has placed great stress on the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. If the inner convictions that are so fundamental to the Christian life — faith, beliefs, integrity, repentance — are to be authentic, they must regularly affect the larger, outer community in which the believer lives. Faith demands works. Mercy implies justice. Spirituality needs physical expression. Like the risen Christ, redeemed Christians must live out their religious existence in both spiritual and material fashion. Faith without works is dead; and works without faith are sterile. The empty tomb reminds all believers that the whole Christ, body and soul, is still active down the centuries through his Church and its members.